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UK football: How sweet it is

Kentucky football fans had a lot to like this year. (Mont Dawson Photo)

By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer

Kentucky Football fans had not created a playbook for this scenario. How do you celebrate at 10-win season?

It was simply a “fly by the seat of your pants” situation. Who would have thought it could happen? How can someone create a game plan for something that hadn’t happened in 41 years? They can’t although it was something to dream about on a sunny fall afternoon when the leaves were starting to change colors and that first frost was on the grass early in the morning. The time of year when the entire college fan base focuses on football. Usually that time of year there is no overlap with basketball or baseball. Just football.

Even better, football in the South. It’s almost like a religion with the “Roll Tide” salutations in Tuscaloosa, the Gator chomp orchestrations in Gainesville and the cowbell’s constant clanging in Starkville. But normally UK fans are shutout of this fanatical experience. Sure, they get to raise their hands and shout and dance in the aisles for the first couple of weeks of the season but after that, oh after that, the Florida Gators appear on the schedule. That usually ends the party like someone throwing cold water on a cat fight. But not this year. Not this September.

It still seems like a dream. Honestly, it’s hard to fathom. A University of Kentucky Football Team beating the Florida Gators, on the road no less, after 31 futile attempts and then going on to win 10 games. Beating rival Louisville at Cardinal Stadium. In a blowout.  Beating the mighty Penn State Nittany Lions and Kentucky coaching nemesis James Franklin in a New Year’s Day Bowl. National media attention from all the largest sports media groups.

The thrill of having a First Team All-American Defensive Player of the Year in college football. The opportunity to watch another All-American running back for UK drag would be tacklers down the field on his way to becoming the all-time leading rusher at UK — in three seasons. To see that same player score the third most career touchdowns ever scored in SEC history. A program that couldn’t seem to string together more than two or three wins in a row in the SEC finished third overall — only behind No. 1 ranked College Football Playoff participant Alabama and the fifth ranked Georgia Bulldogs.

Ten wins! Say that slowly. Roll it over in your mind. It doesn’t happen often. In fact it hasn’t happened since 1977. I remember. I was there. It was incredible then and it is incredible now. Back then it was beating traditional powerhouse teams like Penn State and LSU. This time it was beating teams like a No. 10 Florida team that won 10 games and No. 12 Penn State with the opportunity to finish the season ranked as at least a Top 15 team in the nation.

But it wasn’t easy. Along the way the journey took some scary turns that included a last second sack of Gator quarterback Feleipe Franks by Josh Allen in Gainesville that saved the day, a “gut check” win over Vanderbilt that required Benny Snell to drive the entire length of the field one carry at a time for the winning score and a miraculous win at Missouri after a pass interference call in the end zone that resulted in a touchdown throw from Terry Wilson to tight end CJ Conrad on an untimed play. A throw that was laser-like in it’s accuracy to a player that had lobbied to run that play to win the game.

So many wonderful memories. Like watching a UK defense dominate Missouri — one of the best offenses in the country — for the entire second half by creating eight straight “3 and outs” and holding the Tigers to a total of only 49 yards in that second half.  Or seeing the Louisville Cardinals crumble under an onslaught of blue and white as UK ran and threw their way to a 56-10 beatdown of the Redbirds in the most lopsided victory of the series in the modern era.

And then the cherry on top. A New Year’s Day Bowl against Penn State. Traditional Big Ten power Penn State. The Penn State that was 9-3 overall and 6-3 in the Big Ten.

And as it should be, the game started with a huge play by the defense on special teams shutting down a Penn State fake punt attempt at PSU’s 33-yard line, and ended with Benny Snell carrying the ball six straight times to run down the clock and leave the Nittany Lions with just enough time to run one trick play that was snuffed out by the UK Defense. And when the clock struck 0:00 the blue and white confetti began to fall. The only blue and white there is. UK blue and white. The players danced, shouted and rolled in the confetti on the field. Their Head Coach – Mark Stoops – did an impromptu dance In the locker room along with the players as they celebrated a 10 win season.

It still seems surreal. To think that UK Football could win 10 games out of 13 and beat a highly ranked traditional football powerhouse in a New Year’s Day Bowl Game. The heart always said it could happen but logic immediately butted in and said, “No way!”

The late multi-millionaire Malcolm Forbes once said, “Victory is sweetest when you’ve known defeat.” Forbes must have been a UK Football fan because he hit the nail right on the head. There are very few football programs in the country who have known defeat like the Kentucky Wildcats.

But that just makes the celebration that much “sweeter” and no one appreciates a 10 win season more than the fans that support the Blue and White. From Pikeville to Paducah UK Fans are appreciating one of the “sweetest” seasons of all-time and no matter what happens in the future — win or lose — fans will always remember the year the Kentucky Wildcats conquered the world. Or at least their corner of it.

17 comments

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  1. Nice article Keith. Great year for UK football, and with all that said, they should have had at least one more win. If you don’t know which team that was against, take a guess. That team still has UK’s number. I hope that changes in my life time. All in all, a pretty good year to be a UK football fan.

  2. With all the good things to concentrate on, why would you pick the one screw up of the year. Yes we should of beat Tennessee, but with all the crappy years of UK football, why can’t you just enjoy the best season in 41 years. As UK football fans, we have forgotten how to just stop and enjoy a great season!

    We have a long way to go to be able to critique our football season as Alabama does. We may never get there! We need to learn to enjoy the journey. I for one am thrilled with this season and I am looking forward to next year.

    Mark Stoops has done what no other coach has been able to do since Bear Bryant. We need to be proactive and pay Stoops more than what he is worth to keep him as long as we can.

    1. Easy Ben, did you not read my last sentence? I am a UK football fan first and foremost. Until UK can beat Tennessee on a regular basis they will never win an SEC championship. Stoops has had 6 shots at them and won 1, and that one went to the wire with UT inside the UK 5 yard line ready to beat UK at home in 2017. Hey, I hate UT, can’t stand that bunch of orange puke. But just look at the 2019 recruiting. UT has a top 20 class, 16th I think, and UK sits at somewhere in the 29th to 32nd range. Good, but about 12th in the SEC. Yeah it was a great year by UK standards, but I want them to do so much more. I can’t be completely satisfied with UK football until they win an SEC championship and compete for a national championship. What is wrong with that?

      1. You’re right Pup. It was nice to finally beat Florida after 6 shots but when will it happen again? Will it ever happen with Stoops vs. Georgia? Tennessee just believes it is always better than us as was proven this year. Nice to win 10 games. It will be even nicer to win 10 meaningful games.

  3. You realize that we are about 6 years away from winning the SEC East and 10-12 years to play for a national championship! That is if we continue at the same pace with the same or similar coaching Staff with Stoops in charge. None of this was even remotely possible 6 years ago.

    I am not criticizing your loyalty to the program, I just think you expect to much to fast! It took 41 years to get within one game of the SEC east championship and we were not tough enough to complete with Georgia. Maybe in another 4-6 years, that will be possible. Then Alabama that has owned Georgia. It is a slow process that takes years of success to build up too! I am going to enjoy that journey, no matter the outcome.

    1. Easy Ben. Win the SEC east? Play for a national championship? Please don’t drive until whatever you are on has worn off.

  4. It was a slow build to a great year that, even I, did not fully appreciate during the journey. This loss to UT was, and always will be, totally inexcuseable for the talent differential on both teams, and I predict this was the year to get them because of the talent they have coming in for next year and better coaching at some key positions. The same can predictably be said for UF and several others next year. I do not expect another 10 win season here especially if Gran continues as OC. He was

  5. Been supporting UK football for might near 60 years Ben, that is long enough to expect them not to be dominated by the Big Orange year in year out. You must agree with that don’t you? And actually the 2018 team probably should have won at Texas A&M too, maybe.

    Yes, I agree it takes time, and most of us football fans have been real patient too. At my age I may not have that kind of time left if it takes another 6 years to win an SEC East championship, or 12 years to play for a NC, as you say. I look at it from my perspective. 2018 was a good year indeed. All I am saying is that it could have been even better. Stoops lost a ton of talent off that team that he will not have come 2019. I hope he repeats or goes one up in 2019, but he has it to do. Can he do that with the kind of classes he is signing now? I don’t think so. UK football recruiting has to pick up. Peace my friend.

    1. Just don’t know if recruiting can pick up. Has to be about developing talent like they did with this group

      1. Larry V, here is my take and hope. If Stoops can keep winning, I think he (UK) has a chance at recruiting more star power in the future. Winning consistently is the key, and brings national attention attracting top athletes. There are only so many franchise players nationally, and UK must start signing their fair share to rise in status as a football school. UK has the facilities now too. My question is does Stoops (UK) go head to head with the Clemson’s and Alabama’s for top talent? I hope they do? Stoops must recruit classes that rank in the top 25 at least. A couple of 5 stars and 6 to 8 4 stars added to the roster every year would turn this program into a power house. I say if UT can do it, UK can too, they must. I agree that developing talent is also another facet of the program that has too happen, and these UK coaches have done a decent job with that I guess. If football recruiting don’t pick up, UK will never be able to compete with the top teams in the SEC.

  6. True Larry, i have been following for 50+ years and i feel your frustration. Back in the Ray and Curry days, we would have considered this year winning the national championship. I think this team was just a level below the 77 team! That team dominated the SEC and would have gone undefeated if it were not for the extreme heat in Texas for their only loss. Probation kept them out of a bowl game and title consideration. We are on the same page and i expect another 10 win season next year, with 8 home games and our talent. May not happen, but it could and that is all i ask for.

  7. Almost a 60 yr follower as well. Papa Brooks still one of my favs…can’t immagine what he would have done with Stoop’s talent, but I do how what he did to rebuild Oregon as I was there at the time..OMG those were the best times and not nearly as complicated as things are today.

  8. The problem after all these years the SEC got stronger and that’s were KY football program lag behind to other sec teams and I’m not sure we will ever get to the top likes Georgia or Alabama. There light years ahead of us.

  9. Since we are talking football, I never saw a team take Alabama apart like Clemson did last night. I do believe Lawrence is one of the best freshman QB’s these eyes have ever seen. What a “gunslinger.” Sweeney has that program rocking. They sort of shut the “ROLL TIDE” up big time. I enjoyed every min of it. Saban looked whipped. loved it.

  10. Lawrence played with an unbelievable amount of talent and poise. I didn’t even want to watch the game because am tired of both winning programs, but once I saw Clemson take the lead I got very involved, and it may be a long time before we see Saban and the Tide taken down like this.

  11. UK winds up ranked 12th in the final AP poll, Florida 7th, U K winds up 11th in the Coaches poll, Florida 6th. Yet UK beats UF at home in 2018 pretty handily, each wound up at 10-3 too. The first ESPN prediction I have seen has Florida in the top 10 for 2019, UK is no where to be seen in the top 20 for 2019. My point, UK still gets zero respect. I know UK is facing a rebuilding year in 2019. That is why winning is so important for UK football under Stoops in 2019.

  12. Larry Pup, the only way were gonna get respect is have a constant winning seasons like you been preaching. I’m looking forward to the 2019 season.

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